January 29, 2014

JAMES TARANTO: Enemies of Friends of Abe: How the IRS chills freedom of association.

These days “IRS Targets Conservative Group” is a dog-bites-man story. But this one was man-bites-dog by virtue of its placement: on the front page of the New York Times, a newspaper that is usually supportive of this administration’s efforts to suppress domestic dissent. Put it down to a sudden outbreak of news judgment.

The news value to the Times may lie more in the nature of the organization than its trouble with the IRS. “In a famously left-leaning Hollywood, where Democratic fund-raisers fill the social calendar, Friends of Abe stands out as a conservative group that bucks the prevailing political winds,” reads the lead paragraph.

But Friends of Abe–as in Lincoln–has sought nonprofit status under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Tax Code, which would allow it to collect tax-deductible contributions. The IRS has been reviewing the application for some two years, seeking information about meetings where politicians spoke. A 501(c)(3) is prohibited from engaging in campaign activity, such as hosting a fundraiser, but as the Times notes, “tax-exempt groups are permitted to invite candidates to speak at events.”

The most troubling revelation in the Times account is that at one point the IRS “included a demand–which was not met–for enhanced access to the group’s security-protected website, which would have revealed member names.” The Times points out that FOA “keeps a low profile and fiercely protects its membership list, to avoid what it presumes would result in a sort of 21st-century blacklist” and that “tax experts said that an organization’s membership list is information that would not typically be required.”

With the possible exception of academia, show business is about as totalitarian a subculture as you will find in America. Conservatives are a tiny minority, and they fear for their livelihoods if exposed. A few high-profile celebrities are exceptions–the Times mentions Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer and Lionel Chetwynd–but for lesser-known actors and people who work in off-camera jobs, confidentiality is crucial.

This column obtained a letter that Jeremey Boreing, FOA’s executive director, sent members last week in response to the Times story. Its tone demonstrates how seriously the group takes its members’ privacy.

Follow the link to read it. But weren’t the last enemies of Friends of Abe . . . the Confederates? They told me if I voted for Mitt Romney, the government would be taken over by neo-Confederates. And they were right! At least as far as the IRS goes, anyway.

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